Missing Minnesotans: Brandon Swanson

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The Jacob Wetterling case came to a sad conclusion this past November with the sentencing of his killer 27 years after Jacob was abducted.

Since then, KSTP has been working with families to raise awareness about other young people who are missing.

Monday is Brandon Swanson’s 28th birthday. He disappeared outside of Marshall when he was 19. It’s believed he died of exposure.

Brandon’s family played a big role in changing state law to make law enforcement more responsive to reports of missing people. The search for Brandon is unprecedented and still active.

Annette Swanson smiles when she looks at pictures of her son Brandon.

“He loved his car, he loved to drive,” said Annette Swanson

In May of 2008, the night before he was to graduate from technical school, the 19 year old went out celebrating with friends in Canby, Minnesota.

Around 1 a.m., he headed home to Marshall, about 30 miles away on Highway 68.

“We know that he was on gravel roads,” said Annette Swanson. “Why was he on gravel roads? We don’t know."

"It’s a straight shot down Highway 68,” said Search Manager Jeff Hasse with Midwest Technical Rescue Training. "But he wasn’t on it. He took back roads on the way home."

Hasse says Brandon hasn’t been seen since.

"We believe that he got disoriented,” said Hasse. “And at one point, we know for a fact, he ended up traveling on a field road between two fields."

He says Brandon got stuck and called his parents.

"When he initially called them he said I am between Marshall and Lynd, come get me,” said Hasse.

But Annette says her son was actually in a completely different place than he was telling them.

"He was relaying to us he was near Lynd, Minnesota," said Annette Swanson.

Lynd, where Brandon thought he was, is southwest of Marshall. He was really outside of Porter, which is northwest of Marshall, more than 20 miles away.

Brandon started walking. Annette says he was on the phone with his folks the whole time.

"It sounded like the phone fell,” said Annette Swanson. “And as it fell, we could hear him say oh! What did that mean? Did he fall into a ditch? Did he fall into the river? We don’t know."

At 6 a.m., Annette and her husband Brian called police.

"I couldn’t breathe, I was nauseous, and I think that was just my motherly instincts telling me he’s gone," said Annette Swanson

It was the beginning of what Hasse calls the most well-documented and detailed search ever conducted.

Hasse points to a map showing where Brandon’s car was found.

“Right on the border between Lincoln, Yellow Medicine and Lyon counties,” said Hasse. “But no phone has ever been located."

KSTP was there in May of 2008 as several agencies looked for Brandon. Eventually, Hasse was called to manage the search.

He brought in expert handlers with trailing dogs. Days of looking turned into weeks, then months and now years.

"The search area is always bigger than you suspect it,” Hasse.

"You know what we’re doing with Brandon’s situation” says Annette Swanson. “It’s all based on science. It’s all documented and backed up by science, it’s there and it’s real."

Since 2008, Hasse and other volunteers have spent tens of thousands of hours, walking thousands of miles through farm fields, ditches and rivers, all in a 120 square mile area.

They’ve performed 1,900 K-9 missions, using 45 highly-trained dogs, led by 35 handlers from nine states.

They use GPS technology to track the dogs and handlers, which provides great detail of where they’ve searched.

They broke down the search area into smaller segments and kept meticulous records.

"I believe he fell, got wet, cell phone went dead,” said Hasse. “I think he continued walking. It was cold. It got down to 39 degrees."

Eventually, the dogs pointed them to farm fields north of Porter.

"So we’ve got huge amounts of scent in here,” said Hasse as he points at a map. “More than I’ve ever seen in any other search. So we are really confident that he’s somewhere in this watershed. We just can’t get that final point."

The farm fields where Hasse believes Brandon is are on Highway 68 between Canby and Porter, six miles from where his car was found. He was cold and wet and actually walking in the opposite direction of his home and where his parents were looking for him.

"But I believe all our physical clues are probably located within a 15 foot radius,” said Hasse. “Once we hit one clue we’ll have it solved. There are 206 bones in the body. We only need one."

Annette describes what it’s like when you have a loved one who is missing.

"When you have lost somebody but you have no answers, there’s no knowing where they are or even what happened to them,” said Annette Swanson. “Your brain is in a constant state of trying to figure it out, but you don’t have anything to go on. It’s searching. It’s searching for answers, it’s searching for where, who, what, were, when, why? And you can’t find it."

"Search management is a real soul-sucking job,” said Hasse. "And when one goes as long as this, you know the family has put their hopes on your shoulders. And that gets to be a pretty hard burden. I told the family early on that we will continue searching as long as we have clues to follow up on."

The search for Brandon Swanson will resume this spring if they can get resources together and permission from land owners.

Annette Swanson says the best thing the public can do to help families with missing loved ones is to support volunteer civilian groups that do long term searches.

Search, Rescue and Recovery Resources of Minnesota is a source of information about a wide variety of established organizations that exist to provide search, rescue and recovery services. You can find out more information here.

One positive thing that came out of Brandon’s disappearance is "Brandon’s Law."

Annette and Brian Swanson were there when it was signed by the Governor in 2009.

It requires police to take a report whenever a person, of any age, is reported missing in Minnesota. An investigation must also be done to determine what that person’s status is. And the law makes it clear who has jurisdiction.

Annette says that was a problem in Brandon’s case because his car was found right where three counties come together.

"When it’s not clear as to the last know place where the person was seen, or for any other reason jurisdiction is in question, the county where the person was last known to reside has jurisdiction," said Annette Swanson.

There are resources available to provide assistance to families with missing loved ones.

You can find out more information about the Jacob Wetterling Resources Center here.

The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children works to help find missing children, reduce child sexual exploitation, and prevent child victimization. You can find out more about the organization here.